“If we see light at the end of the tunnel, it’s the light of the oncoming train.”Robert Lowell
by Robert Lowell
Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name
Happy New Years. My intention has been to spend the month of January doing a deeper dive into Robert Lowell, the last white male poet to be on the cover of Time Magazine. It is said we all foreshadow our own destruction, but in the case of Lowell, he foreshadowed not only his own, but also nearly the down fall of poetry itself in America.
In my mind Lowell epitomizes where the politics of poetry went wrong in the 20th Century. For an artform that is irreparably bound to breaking all the conventions in its creation, there is still politics in the way that new poets are vetted and published and paid. Something happened as Lowell reached the zenith of his career in the 1960’s that nearly broke poetry. The business of poetry, which was and still is in some ways, largely controlled by an elitist insulated establishment, committed the gravest of sins in my mind, it became boring. Lowell is the demarcation point where poetry hit the proverbial white male wall. And although there have been many fine white male poets who have carried on since, the sun has set on that regime to have the type of influence, readership and popular appeal that was possible in the first half of the 20th century.
The 1970’s, 1980’s and beyond have seen the rise of greater diversity, different perspectives, different expressionism and the full ascension of free verse, to the point that many poets have forgotten, that poetry at its essence should go beyond the page and live in our mouths as well as our minds. It should read well aloud. The past 40 years have carved out a niche for nearly ever type of poetry, but along with it a smaller and smaller readership, at least published, even for the most successful, such that it is harder and harder for a poet to make a living as a poet. Poetry has become what it always was, a way of thinking, a life style, but it is only for a very talented few, who can actually make a living at it without subsidizing their passion through teaching or another line of work or an acceptance of poverty. You don’t have to be wealthy to be a poet, but it certainly doesn’t hurt if it is your desire for it to be your vocation. And such as it has been since Homer and Browning.
Lowell wrote 100’s of sonnets in his lifetime and translated nearly that many as well from other poets. Yet, there is not a single sonnet of Lowell’s that I can point to that anyone is likely to be familiar or that I would give a resounding, thumbs up. The problem with celebrating Lowell is he is hard to like because his poetry is so overtly academic, it is not accessible. Lowell’s poems are inside jokes of arcane knowledge written for the critics and his other academic friends to decipher. And because Lowell won nearly every award a poet can win, and was heaped with praise and success, other’s followed mistakenly down his rather drab path, creating a self-compounding problem of scaring off more and more readers. Poetry became up and through the 1990’s more and more incestuous in the process of what is published. In my opinion, the only thing that saved poetry from extinction was the internet. The internet over the last 20 years made it possible for writers to self publish in ways that harken back to Dicken’s selling single page periodicals in the streets. Anyone willing to set up a blog and willing to write could access the world.
I honestly believe more people on the planet are reading poetry than ever before, though you wouldn’t know it to look at the poetry section in your local bookstore, that is if your local book store has survived the ravages of the past 20 years and the pandemic. The fact that local book stores have closed in droves across the United States is further evidence of the challenges that writers face in finding their audience in the traditional printed sense. And yet, I am blown away by the level of talent that emerges year after year. There are more good writers of poetry than ever before, even if book sales continue to decline.
The internet has made it possible for people to create, find and share poetry like never before. So why spend a month diving into someone I so dislike and worse disdain? Life is too short to read bad poetry. My mantra about reading poetry is the same as it is for food, consume what you enjoy! The reason is I have decided I would like to figure out maybe where poetry took the wrong road less traveled, particularly classical poetry and why it hit a dead end. And to do so, I thought it might be interesting to follow that trail back and look about. If the sonnet is a vehicle of artistic endeavor rusting in the scrap yard in most readers minds, then let’s spend a little time with one of the writers who helped run it off the road into some trees. Lowell was connected to so many poets, first as a student, then through his social network as friends, and then as a professor and the writers he mentored as students, that he is one of those literary figures that sits at the center of an incredible spider web of authors from the 20th century. I will do my best over the next 30 days, to spend the majority of the time on writers other than Lowell, to which Lowell was connected, and to actually find a poem or two of Lowell’s in his vast collected works, that I enjoy. Wish me luck.
Happy New Years! And if Lowell and his cronies are not to your liking. I will see you in February.
Bringing A Turtle Home
by Robert Lowell
On the road to Bangor, we spotted a domed stone,
a painted turtle petrified by fear.
I picked it up. The turtle had come a long walk,
200 millennia understudy to dinosaurs,
then their survivor. A god for the out-of-power….
Faster gods come to Castine, flush yachtsman who see
hell as a city very much like New York,
these gods gave a bad past and worse future to men
who never bother to set a spinnaker;
culture without cash isn’t worth their spit.
The laughter on Mount Olympus was always breezy….
Goodnight, little Boy, little Soldier, live,
a toy to your friend, a stone of stumbling to God —-
sandpaper Turtle, scratching your pail for water.